House GOP to Gore: No Room for This View
By Juliet Eilperin
Republicans have deleted funding for the proposal as part of a $41 billion NASA funding bill going to the House floor today. Angry Democrats have accused the GOP of scuttling the provision only out of a desire to embarrass the vice president, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination next year.
"To bring this up just out of partisan rancor, I'm afraid, is going to sink a good bill we were trying to put together," said Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), the top Democrat on the Science Committee's space and aeronautics subcommittee and one of Gore's closest allies in the House. "For anyone to think any presidential votes are going to hinge on this is ludicrous, and it's going to be launched after the presidential race."
But Republicans said it was Democrats who were politicizing the issue by pushing for a wasteful spending project that some in the GOP characterized as "crazy." House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) told reporters yesterday, "The partisan reaction was on the part of the Democrats."
Still, the dispute offers an early preview of how the 2000 presidential race is likely to shape legislative maneuvering in the months to come. House Republicans, including Armey, are already monitoring potential missteps by the vice president and have escalated their attacks on Gore over such issues as the Year 2000 computer bug.
Gore has said the idea for the Internet project came to him in the middle of the night last March. Under the plan, a spacecraft dubbed Triana -- after the lookout on Columbus's ship who first spotted the New World -- would transmit pictures from orbit, offering scientists images of changing clouds, large-scale fires, and other natural phenomena. Gore said the project would help scientists analyze weather systems and cloud patterns in ways they can't today.
NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin estimated last year that the project would cost between $20 million and $50 million but that price tag has risen to $75 million, excluding the $100 million launch cost for the satellite. The satellite is set to be launched in December 2000 and even if Congress stopped funding for the program now, according to congressional estimates, the federal government would have spent nearly $41 million on it by the end of the year.
Problems with the bill arose last Thursday, when GOP Reps. George Nethercutt (Wash.) and Dave Weldon (Fla.) offered an amendment in the Science Committee to transfer $32.6 million for Triana to life and microgravity research.
The amendment passed on a party-line vote, 21 to 18, and Gordon warned darkly that he had spoken the day before with Goldin, who he said was considering recommending that President Clinton veto the bill if Triana is axed.
In the final committee vote on the overall bill, only five Democrats joined the Republicans in supporting the authorization for NASA. Democrats said yesterday the bill is likely to pass the House, but then they would work to restore the Internet Earth-view provision during negotiations with the Senate.
"What the Republicans are doing is putting politics above leadership, partisanship over progress, and now Campaign 2000 is even trumping science," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane. "They're quickly devolving into the party of troglodytes."
But Weldon said he considers the program "an abuse of power" because NASA found money for Gore's initiative after laying off 600 employees in late 1997. "For Congress to sit back and do nothing is an insult to the people who got pink slips in my district," Weldon said.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) managed to eliminate funding for the project in last year's appropriations bill but Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), whose state houses one of the centers conducting research on it, successfully led the fight to restore the money. DeLay openly mocked the idea of "pictures of Earth turning on its little axis" last year on the House floor.
Armey, who noted that he sees images of the Earth often on the Weather Channel and that four Web sites show up-to-date pictures of Earth from space, questioned why taxpayers would pay for a separate federal program.
"I see satellite pictures of Earth quite frequently, and I am always very grateful to have them," he said. "I don't know that I need a second shot."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company